When it’s fully loaded and ready to fly, a 747 jet can weigh as much as 400 metric tons, and airlines obsess over shaving off every possible ounce of weight. Losing even a single pound can save around 14,000 gallons of fuel in a year.
Some carriers put in lighter seats and even lighter seatbelts, some strip paint off the outside of the jet (paint alone can weigh hundreds of pounds), and last year, one airline started charging passengers a fat tax.
Now, by tweaking the design of meal trays, Virgin Atlantic has lightened the load of their flights by nearly 300 pounds each, enough to save millions of dollars in fuel costs and trim carbon emissions.
The meal tray project didn’t start as an exercise in fuel economy; the airline just wanted to improve the dinner experience for passengers and was trying to find a way to serve dessert and coffee after the meal, instead of with the main course. But along the way, they also realized that the existing trays were too big, and worked with designers to come up with a slimmer version that would be easier to eat from—and also happened to save weight.
"The new design reduced weight partly because the trays were smaller, and because we replaced the paper liner which is normally used to stop things sliding around," says Jon Marshall, design director of the U.K. consultancy MAP, which led the redesign. "That actually added up to quite a good savings."
Because the trays were smaller, the designers were able to squeeze so many more on a trolley that fewer trolleys—which are heavy in themselves—had to be taken on board.
The designers spent the last few years perfecting their creation, spending countless hours in a mocked-up cabin on the ground testing various iterations. When they had a prototype they wanted to test more, they'd make a few samples to send on a real flight and get feedback from the crew.
Along the way, they noticed other ways that the airline might be able to lose pounds in the future, from redesigning the meal trolley itself (tricky because trolleys tend to be engineered in a standard format across the industry) to changing tiny details, like the way that milk is served with tea.
"We had quite a few discussions about opportunities to save weight and cost through serving milk a different way," says Marshall. "But not every idea we had was implementable. On the milk front, some of the packaging couldn't be recycled at the destination, so they'd actually fly it back to London. That negates the savings that can be made."
The story, Marshall says, is a typical example of how complex it can be to make a seemingly simple change on an airline. For now, the designers think they've done as much as possible to reduce weight in this project. But the airlines will likely keep looking for the next gram to save.